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In an age of streaming, how does the humble videocassette satisfy the nostalgic urges of cinephiles?

Image: ‘Abrasumente’, Tumblr

The videocassette is popular again.

At least that’s the impression you might get when trawling the internet. Just one click and you’ll find yourself at Appreciation for Paramount Openings. This page is a love letter to the pre-movie grandiosity featured on Paramount tapes.  Or you can click onto the Reddit page for VHS Video Cover Art and find a paean to the garish artwork that adorned videocassette boxes.

Why the sudden reverence for the videocassette? Why, in this era of downloads, smartphones and streaming services, would anyone sing the praises of a medium that was so blatantly low-tech and clunky?

The answer, I think, is nostalgia.

In its most basic sense, nostalgia refers to a longing for the past – and, in particular, a longing for a rose-coloured view of that past. Nostalgia has long been popular in marketing and promotions. I recall with fondness (yes, a nostalgic fondness) the ‘Nostalgia’ section in my local video shop during the 1980s and 1990s, with its rows of cinematic masterpieces stored between brightly hued covers. I recall my youthful self being wooed by images of an era that I hadn’t lived through but that was suddenly before me, in all its Technicolour glory.

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The videocassette first appeared on the market during the 1970s and increased in popularity during the 1980s. My parents bought our first videocassette recorder (VCR) in 1985. Initially, videocassettes were released primarily on the Beta format, though Beta was quickly overtaken in market sales by Video Home System (VHS). These days, the VHS is the better known of the two formats.

The videocassette resembled an oversized cassette tape: same square shape, same colour. The videocassette allowed you to watch and record films and TV shows in the comfort of your own home. No more waiting for that televised rerun, or for the repertory cinema to play your favourite movie. You could rewind or fast-forward the videocassette to get to the good bits. You could pause to get a drink or take a (landline) telephone call.

You could rewind or fast-forward to the good bits… You could pause to get a drink or take a (landline) telephone call.

Now the videocassette has become part of the past, superseded by DVD, and then by the ever-expanding panoply of viewing formats. In July 2016, USA Today reported: ‘The world’s last producer of home-use video cassette recorders is ending production at the end of the month.’ A popular meme doing the rounds on social media depicts a Blockbuster video store partially concealed by foliage. The tagline is: Ancient ruins of a forgotten world.

So why yearn for these ancient ruins? I suspect it’s because the videocassette isn’t sexy or showy. In fact, the videocassette is almost alarmingly simple – from the grainy picture quality to the (ironically) time-consuming fast-forward/rewind functions. And ‘simple’ is a word we like to associate with the past. Simplicity equals happiness and certainty.

Then there are the memories attached to the videocassette. Everyone who grew up during the height of that medium’s popularity will have these fond memories. The sugar rush of bonding with friends over Coca-Cola and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The illicit thrill of watching Basic Instinct after your parents had specifically told you not to. The suspense that came with racing into your local video store to hire that New Release before another punter snapped it up.

It’s this nostalgia that prompted me to set up Video Shop Daze. The blog site went live in September 2016 (just moments after VCR production ceased) and revisits the films I recall watching on videocassette. These films range from the relatively well known (Lost Highway) to the obscure (Dracula’s Last Rites, anyone?)

The tagline for Video Shop Daze is: ‘It’s yesterday once more, all over again.’ This is, of course, a reference to brother-and-sister duo The Carpenters’ hit ‘Yesterday Once More’. That tune is itself an unabashed hankering for days gone by:

When I was young, I’d listen to the radio
Waitin’ for my favorite songs
When they played I’d sing along, it made me smile

Those were such happy times and not so long ago
How I wondered where they’d gone
But they’re back again, just like a long lost friend
All the songs I loved so well

The Carpenters are themselves paragons of nostalgic sentiment. Their earnest lyrics, clean-cut image and angelic harmonies speak of a mythical, happier, more innocent era. A time when touching your lover while dancing was the most romantic thing you could do. A time before video killed the radio star.

Yet the band’s wholesome, cheerful facade was deceptive. Richard struggled for several years with a drug addiction, while Karen Carpenter died in 1983, aged only 32, after a well-publicised battle with anorexia nervosa.

The Carpenters represent the extremities of nostalgia. Their music and image invoke the sunshine of yesteryear, while their personal lives suggest the dark clouds that hovered around this sunshine.

Images: Vault of VHS Tumblr)

Images: Vault of VHS (Tumblr)

On Video Shop Daze, I’m not interested in tragedy per se. I do, however, recognise that nostalgia can have two sides. Many of the films I discuss on the blog are a long way from sophisticated, no matter what I thought when I first watched them. Nevertheless, it is this lack of sophistication – this simplicity – that makes the memory of watching them on the unsophisticated VHS so endearing.

For example, in a January 2017 post, I revisited the Swinging Sixties schlocker Curse of the Crimson Altar. I purchased this videocassette for a princely $1 at the now gone but not forgotten Movie Reel in Northcote, Melbourne. A Grand Guignol thriller for only a buck? At the video shop that catered for the most obscure and idiosyncratic of celluloid tastes? Those were the days!

The videocassette cover – with its crimson backdrop, skull and candle – is almost cringe-inducing in its crudity. The script itself is a half-hearted rehash of a dozen other haunted-house horrors released during that era. And yet who can’t love a film featuring leather-clad Satanists, a green-fleshed femme fatale with a ram’s horn helmet, and shagadelic parties? Who can’t love those zero-budget special effects?

What more appropriate medium to watch such a film on than the videocassette?

Indeed, while there are many blogs about videocassettes and films, there are few blogs about the actual experience of watching films on videocassette. I aim to rectify this state of affairs because the experience of watching a movie on videocassette differs dramatically to watching one on, say, a laptop or a phone. I look the imagery adorning particular videocassette covers and consider how these informed my viewing of certain films. I poke gentle fun at the opaque image quality that was (as mentioned earlier) a notorious feature of the videocassette.

The experience of watching a movie on videocassette differs dramatically to a laptop or a phone.

Moreover, in Video Shop Daze I consider the role that memory plays in watching films. What do we remember about a certain film and what do we forget? How can our memories of even the most odious pieces of celluloid be softened by the warm glow of nostalgia?

So why, then, did I choose the blog format? There are two key reasons for this.

First, blogs are accessible to a wide audience, or at least more so than the academic journals to which I usually submit work. This accessibility can be traced to the snappy prose and short paragraphs that are key features of blogging. Second, blogs are interactive. Gifs, hyperlinks, videos – so many tools are at the blogger’s disposal. This interactivity makes the reading experience fun and informative.

Few of us would genuinely want to return to a time when the VCR reigned supreme. The past is never as good as you remember it, right? Yet, with only a few clicks, you can enjoy yesterday once more. All over again.